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Civility failure

swiftYou may have noticed that, thanks to the recent outbursts of nastiness inflicted by Kanye West, Joe Wilson, and Serena Williams, more than a little ink has been spilled lamenting the current state of public discourse. Here are some random examples grabbed from my feed reader:

Create Your Communications Experience: Handling Hecklers – Obama does it well

Speak to Lead: Presidential oratory, discourse & disagreement – A look back at a kinder time?

USATODAY.com: What happened to civility?

Laura Bergells’ approach was to pose the question: “How will you handle a hostile audience member who wants to hijack your presentation or special moment on stage?”

I think the best way to handle a situation like this is to begin to handle it long before you get anywhere near the presentation venue. Plan for an unwelcome outburst the same way you would plan for any other occurrence that could lessen your chances of presenting successfully. Just like you need to prepare for a projector failure or a sound system failure, you also need to prepare for a civility failure.

We’re talking basic contingency planning here. Decide how likely it is that a civility failure will take place and characterize the nature of the failure(s) most like to occur. Then decide, for the types of civility failure that might actually happen, whether they are likely to cause your presentation to fail. If they are likely to happen and likely to wreck your presentation, plan for them. If there is some possibility of them happening but it’s absolutely certain that they will destroy your ability to continue presenting, plan for them.

For example, in a meeting with an audience of any more than ten or fifteen people, it’s pretty likely that someone’s cell phone is going to ring. A disruption caused by someone forgetting to be polite enough to put the phone on vibrate. It may be very likely to happen, but it’s effect will be negligible so you most likely don’t even need to take it into serious consideration. On the other hand, we have the example of last Summer’s town hall meetings. The civility failures seemed to surprise almost everyone and the early events went very badly. Careful, thoughtful pre-presentation planning became evident once it was clear that attempts to disrupt proceedings were both very likely to take place and very likely to succeed.

When you are preparing to deal with these situations, it’s crucial to remember our old friend, Principle Number 1If you can’t do without it, make sure you won’t have to.  If it look like civility is going to be in short supply at the meeting venue, be sure to bring your own as backup.

And of course, few people know more about civility failure than Dilbert:


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